Hal Blaine drove the bus on records for Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, the Byrds, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Johnny Rivers, Sonny & Cher, Jan & Dean, the Mamas & the Papas, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Dean Martin, Petula Clark, and the Grass Roots…to name but a few. And his seismic sonic boom laid the foundation for Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound.” By the end of 1966 he’d nailed scores of chartbusters. Along with Earl Palmer, he was one of the chief engines of the Wrecking Crew, a name Blaine himself coined for a cadre of Los Angeles studio wizards who navigated the sea of trends in the kaleidoscopic pop world of the ’60s and conjured sounds that are still fresh and vital in the twenty-first century.
Popular music was changing in 1967. That June, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, often hailed as the record that elevated the long-player to an art form. A year before, Blaine and his fellow maestros helped Brian Wilson express his artistic vision for a work that today is considered by many to be as iconic as Sgt. Pepper. In fact, Beatles producer George Martin later said Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have existed had the Fabs not first heard the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds.
The Doors would “try to set the night on fire.” Jefferson Airplane sang of “hookah-smoking caterpillars.” The Grateful Dead, Cream, and other bands were jamming ad infinitum. But as the pop world was freaking out in 1967, Blaine was able to do his own thing. “These groups never bothered me,” Hal says today. “They were their own identities. They played their hits and misses. When producers hired me for my sound and expertise, they’d rarely ask me to be a Ringo, a Charlie Watts, or a Keith Moon. And when a new producer came along and gave me instructions to ‘Try the intro the way the Beach Boys did something,’ which was me anyway, or they would say, ‘Let’s do the bridge like the Rolling Stones and an ending like whoever had a hit record,’ I would gently say, ‘We could sure do that for you, but why not let us make a record for your artist that will make other producers say, “I want that sound that you did on this or that hit record”?’ It usually worked.”
Blaine was all over the place in ’67. Literally. He routinely banged around United, Western, Gold Star, RCA, and other L.A. studios, but also flew to New York City to cut some sessions for Simon & Garfunkel’s celebrated Bookends LP.
Then there was the Monterey Pop Festival in June, which featured historic appearances by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and a slew of the new self-contained groups that were turning on the world. Blaine was there as the house drummer/bandleader for any artists who needed a sticksman. Among them were Laura Nyro, the Mamas & the Papas, Scott McKenzie, and Johnny Rivers.
One band that “broke it up” at Monterey was the Who. The group’s unhinged drummer studied Blaine’s extroverted style and blasted it into a new stratosphere. Hal remembers, “I met Keith Moon at Monterey. He was one of my biggest fans. I thought he was great! He was being an actor; he was all theatrics. And at the finale, when they started smashing everything…we’d never witnessed that in the studio, obviously. [But] in interviews Keith would say, ‘When I grow up I want to be like Hal Blaine.’”
Blaine’s drumming could also be found on all reaches of the Hot 100—usually near the top. It took skill, talent, and, perhaps most important, a deep sense of caring to make a successful, enduring piece of music. Blaine explains, “I’d usually ask, ‘What is a song?’ It’s a story. If you’re blasting on the drums at one particular loudness because you feel that it’s your record, you’re wrong. The songs were wonderful, and I personally listened to every new song in order to examine my motivation. I was like a painter as a drummer accompanist. I used my drumsticks sort of like a painter’s brushes. I filled in spaces and colored my work according to that given story.”
The examples of Blaine’s artistry in 1967 are multifold. His brisk, crisp beat grounds the Association’s number-one hit “Windy,” and his gentle brushwork graces the group’s “Never My Love,” a number-two Billboard smash and BMI’s second-most-played song on radio and television of the twentieth century. Blaine grabbed his second Grammy for Record of the Year in ’67 with Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” (recorded in 1966). His third was the Fifth Dimension’s airy 1967 hit “Up, Up and Away.” Amazingly, he won this award for six consecutive years.
Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” served as an unofficial anthem for the Summer of Love and showcases the cool, clean bass work of Joe Osborn, arguably Blaine’s main partner in crime in ’67. Together they fashioned a distinctive, hit-making sound.
Everybody loved Hal. He had a ready sense of humor that he used to diffuse tense moments in the studio, and he consistently divined the sweet spot. Plus he invented the coolest, most musical fills, making for percussive hooks that upped the appeal of a track. Johnny Rivers’ “Summer Rain,” with trademark Blaine dynamics and lyrical accents, is a shining example. And check out the Mamas & the Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” and their overlooked take on Rogers and Hart’s “Glad to Be Unhappy,” where Blaine playfully struts his stuff with tight, controlled abandon. “Let’s face it,” Hal chuckles, “drummers are all basically showoffs looking for recognition!”
Space just does not allow a thorough discussion of Blaine’s myriad significant records of ’67. But here’s a few more anyway: Love’s classic Forever Changes, the radical-grooved “Mary, Mary” by the Monkees’ (later sampled by Run-D.M.C. and others), and pieces for the Beach Boys’ fabled epic SMiLE. Look up the rest—you’ll be amazed.
In fact, Blaine did make a statement that decidedly reflected the vibe of ’67, with Psychedelic Percussion, one of his three solo albums on the Dunhill label. The original liner notes tout it as “a mind excursion of rare beauty,” and titles include “Love-In (December),” “Hallucinations (April),” and “Flower Society (May).” Blaine plays wiggy solos while Emil Richards and Gary Coleman smack Siamese gongs, wobble boards, a U.S. Navy gas alarm, tubular chimes, and Tahitian Pooee Lee sticks, and electronica mavens Paul Beaver and Mike Lang wax trippingly with keyboard sounds extraordinaire.
“My idea was to get several of the great percussionists that I was working with a lot to go into the studio,” Blaine recalls. “I’d kick off a tempo and the guys would all come in, just pure noise. Not really a part of any psychedelic percussion, but it worked. We all laughed and had a ball. I was the guy who was always coming up with weird ideas to be different.”
By the end of 1967, Blaine, along with his tech, Rick Foucher, was finalizing an innovative “monster kit” that expanded on his four-piece blue-sparkle Ludwig set by adding custom-made, single-headed, fiberglass toms. Blaine scholar John Sheridan explains, “The concept was an octave of drums. He tuned his four lower concert toms to the opening four-note melody of ‘I Got Rhythm,’ starting with largest one—16″ to 14″ to 13″ to 12″—then tuning the 10″, 8″, and 6″ to the appropriate intervals above.”
“Around the kit” fills now took on a new meaning, with a signature sound that marked Blaine’s career throughout the coming years. The idea had been brewing since the late ’50s, when he began detuning timbales to add new weapons to his arsenal. “I started developing my Octoplus setup,” Blaine says, “because, being a musically trained individual, I wanted more drums for more musical ideas—and more showoff stuff! There are other drummers out there who are trying to take credit for my Octoplus setup. I think the general drum industry knows that my rack setup was my design.”
What was it like to be Hal Blaine in 1967? “Arlyn’s Answering Service kept my work book/calendar,” he says. “I typically got up at 6 a.m. to make an 8 a.m. downbeat in the studio. I was usually booked up to three months in advance. Producers and artists came from all over the planet to record, because we had so many hit records on the charts in those days.
“I usually worked at least three major union sessions a day,” Blaine continues, “sometimes seven days a week. In between these three-hour sessions I would often do an overdub for someone next door or across the street while on a five- or ten-minute break. Hence, more sessions on the contract—up to seven in one day! Rick was always one setup in front of me and tearing down a setup that I had just finished. He was the man that saw to it that I was always on time for a session. Guitarist Tommy Tedesco and I often would lie down in front of our instruments when we finished a session at three in the morning, and then we had an 8 a.m. call in the same studio. They’d wake us with coffee, and we were ready to hit the bathroom and start recording. Those were all wonderful and amazing days and nights.”
And the beat went on. Blaine would record and tour for decades to come, racking up a total of forty number-one singles and 150 top tens before semi-retiring, a concept that seems abstract to the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who’s pushing ninety. In 2013 he reunited with guys from the Wrecking Crew for a fellow member’s final recording session. “I just received my eighth Grammy winning Record of the Year, Glen Campbell’s ‘I’m Not Gonna Miss You,‘ all of these years later. It was just part of my fourth Oscar-winning soundtrack. I’m still in shock.” And in 2017 Blaine was on the kit with Ronnie Spector at a special NAMM Show event to reprise his iconic groove from the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.”
Blaine’s massive discography boasts more than 35,000 recorded tracks, including nearly 6,000 singles, LP cuts, jingles, TV themes, and film scores. How does he account for such greatness? “Attitude meant a lot,” Hal says. “I used to tell the guys, ‘If you smile, you stay around for a while. If you pout, you’re out!’”
Now that’s a groovy mantra.